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Top Five Musical Clichés

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We look to music to express things that are true and sincere, ways to express our innermost feelings and bare our souls. But sometimes what was once meaningful becomes a musical trope played to express the most basic of feelings: like how Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major is used to express anything highbrow and Pachelbel’s Canon has appeared at some point in just about every movie or TV show that’s had a wedding. As much as we may love these works, they’ve become clichés. 

1. Rossini's William Tell overture

Rather than calling to mind Swiss folk hero, the William Tell overture conjures up the Lone Ranger barking out “Hi-yo Silver Away,” faster than a speeding bullet when it comes across the airwaves. Rossini intended the famous melody to connote a cavalry charge, and it has almost to a fault; anyone who leads a charge inevitably seems to gallop off into the distance on Rossini’s cue.

2. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries

From Bugs Bunny to Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Die Walküre has become ubiquitous for anyone on a mission, whether it’s to flummox Elmer Fudd or attack the Vietnamese. Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon on the television show 30 Rock even references one of these references. When someone notes that her ringtone happens to resemble the Wagner leitmotif, Lemon corrects her, saying the tune is “Kill the Wabbit.”

3. Barber’s Adagio for Strings

When coming to grips with tragedy, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings seems to be the necessary accompaniment. In fact, Thomas Larson wrote a book about this phenomenon: The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The slowly ascending chords have played during funerals of FDR, JFK, Albert Einstein and Grace Kelly. The work scored both played during the 9/11 tributes and in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, all of which comes to mind when the Adagio is played. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop told the New York Times on the occasion of the centennial of Barber’s birth, “I’ve been conditioned by the power of … visuals to associate Adagio with traumatic events.” That association also works to the advantage in the satirical cartoon series South Park in its more melodramatic moments.

4. Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra

Richard Strauss opening notes of his tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, were meant to evoke man discovering the power of god. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick and his 2001: A Space Odyssey, it elicits images of an ape whacking a skull with a femur. Afterwards, any triumph of a person or species no matter how large or small (or ironic, as in the case of a morbidly obese captain lifting himself on his feet in the Pixar film Wall-E) seems to include the same chords and rumbling timpani.

5. Orff's Carmina Burana

Perhaps Carl Orff would have been delighted that his Carmina Burana has essentially become a jock jam, regularly played at sports events. After all, the cantata speaks of the fickleness of fortune and wealth, as well as the joys of gambling and lust—all themes that resonate within athletic competition. Or perhaps, it’s just the driving rhythms and intimidating chorus that have made it a Latin version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You. The work’s opening chorus “O Fortuna” is so familiar in arenas, the Cleveland Orchestra used it in a spoof